January 26th, 2017
In this week’s Backstory, in the corner with Calvin, and in deeper with Faithful Presence
We recently challenged you to let Calvin–his Institutes specifically–occupy some of your reading time in 2017. (If you don’t want to buy the hard copy, you can access the whole work here.) If you’ve taken us up on the idea, you’ve doubtless found him a bit heavy to read, and likely a bit pointed–especially towards the Roman Catholics of his day (whom he refers to, with a clearly pejorative denotation, as “papists.”)
Well, just so that you don’t think of our challenge as a subliminal attempt at indoctrination, and so that you aren’t misled into thinking this will be effortless task, allow us to quote at length Alan Jacobs. He’s taken it upon himself, at the suggestion of Calvinist friends of his, to devote some of his reading life this year to the (in)famous Genevan theologian. Here’s his candid reflections shortly into his foray with Calvin:
Lately I’ve been trying to read John Calvin, and I’m struggling. When I was in graduate school I read the whole of the Institutes, and as I recall I did so with interest and at least some profit, but now … it’s hard.
People who love Calvin often say that his thinking and theology must be clearly distinguished from the use later made of them. If certain Calvinists are dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness, those vices should not be attributed retrospectively to Calvin. Which is certainly true, and something I try to keep in mind. But as I read Calvin now, I consistently find him to be dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, and prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness.
I am not at all sure I’m being fair to Calvin. I would like to think that as I get older I become a better reader, because I know more and have more experience. (Don’t we all like to think that of ourselves?) But experience is a two-edged sword. In the decades since I first read the Institutes I’ve had a great deal of experience with Calvinists, or people who claim to be Calvinists, and with some notable exceptions it hasn’t been pleasant. (In general, and for whatever reason or set of reasons, I found the Calvinists I met at Calvin College far more generous and humane — far more attuned to the spirit of Christ, at least as I discern it — than the Calvinists I met at Wheaton College. And in an environment that’s not wholly Calvinist, self-consciously Calvinist undergrads can be enormously troublesome, because they believe, and tell everyone who will listen, that they and they alone have the honesty and courage to face the hard truths of the Bible….)
But I digress. The point today is that I am simply unable to isolate my reading of Calvin from those several decades of experience (both in person and in reading) with people who admire and see themselves as followers of Calvin. It is possible that this background is actually helpful: for instance, perhaps if generations of readers have discerned certain implications in Calvin’s work, then they’ve seen something that’s really there, for good or ill, and I would do well to be attentive to it. But it seems to me more likely that Calvin’s successors, being less gifted than he, are drawing less subtle and nuanced conclusions than he did. And if that is the case, then my years of experience may be making me a less successful reader of Calvin than I was thirty years ago — at least in certain ways. (What I’ve learned about theology and church history in the intervening years has to be worth something.)
In any event, as I read I keep telling myself read this as though it’s new to you, as though you have no idea who John Calvin is — but it’s not working very well. I find myself longing to turn to Thomas Aquinas, whom I find infinitely more simpatico. But I shall persevere — both in reading Calvin and in trying to understand what it means to be a good reader.
What Calvin taught may be a far cry from the rumination upon his work by subsequent generations; distinguishing between the two is important. But Calvin himself invites no little critique, if not of his tenacity and appreciation for thoroughness, his hard-bitten style somewhat at odds with the more genial and pastoral elements of his thought.
So enough talk about Calvin. Let’s begin listening to him–and wrestling with him:
It’s a good bet that your fridge has its share of magnets. Grocery lists, pictures of friends you love or missionaries you may support, that kids art which might not be quite up for framing but you would’t dare think of discarding–all have made their way to that massive, metallic, makeshift canvas-calendar-art-gallery.
Among the magnets affixed to your fridge, you most likely have one from some scenic place you’ve visited. We have our share. It’s as if we haven’t really been there unless we’ve brought back some tiny trinket attesting to our presence in that place. So adorning our fridge are little representations of Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida, and more recently, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Of magnet-makers we suspect there is no end. Their simple task lies in encapsulating the wonder of a given place in a 3″ x 2″ space. While no one buys a magnet to recapture the fulness of what it was to briefly occupy that hallowed spot, the token never fails to evoke at least a few cherished memories of time well spent in a previously undiscovered country.
But one thing is certain about magnets: no one who buys a magnet thinks it really represents the totality of the thing to which it points. It’s not intended to and no one expects it should. The representation of the thing makes no claim to stand in for what it represents. So neither the place represented, nor those who maintain that place, take any umbrage at the clever, creative attempt to capture the place’s essence.
But just for a moment consider another scenario in which the need to accurately represent something takes on a greater importance: like when you have your picture taken. Whether it was the angle, the lighting, what you were wearing, or the mood you were in when the the picture was taken, we’ve all been in that moment when a picture–a representation–didn’t just fail to capture the truth about you; it may have even offered a distorted version. Now, it’s just a picture–easily deleted or discarded. But there’s still a little part of you that preferred that one snapshot in time not to go on public record.
When the representation of a person becomes a matter of both public record and for public encounter, the stakes get even higher for accuracy. Consider the response when the memorial for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr was first unveiled back in 2011. The praise for finally enshrining among Washington D.C.’s panoply of memorials King’s singular contribution to the Civil Rights movement was nearly overshadowed by the disappointment many felt over the work’s shortcomings. The outcry finally subsided, but it surely highlighted the principle of how the highness of the personage portrayed was proportional to the expectation for its fidelity to the truth of that person.
In the recent reading from the first book of Calvin’s Institutes, he makes the case that when the 2nd Commandment insisted upon the complete prohibition of any image of God being created or introduced into the worship of the church, that wasn’t just a guideline, or a helpful suggestion; God meant it.
“Corporeal images are unworthy of the majesty of God. . .he rejects without exception all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring near to them.” (Institutes, 1.11.6, and 1.11.1, respectively).
Why does Calvin believe the Commandment so expressly repudiates any attempt to represent God in visual form? For one because any attempt therein, inexorably reduces the full glory of God to a degree and in a way that distorts our worship of Him.
No matter how noble or painstaking is that attempt to capture the essence of God–whether all or one of His attributes–the effort is doomed from the start. If God will refuse to show Moses His full glory (Exodus 31) then how can anyone fathom to represent that glory in some image?
Calvin takes into account the fact that by the time of his writing the church had already been through centuries of adorning its worship with pictorial representations of God and of His Christ. The Eastern church had made iconography a central part of its liturgical and aesthetic life, and not merely to cultivate its artistic gifts but because so many of its believers were non-literate and thus required something other than reading to facilitate their understanding of doctrine and practice. But for Calvin, “whosoever therefore is desirous of being instructed in the true knowledge of God must apply to some other teacher than images.” And why we might ask? Because not only is distortion liable to enter into our conceptions of God, but idolatry: “idolatry has its origin in the idea which men have, that God is not present with them unless his presence is carnally exhibited. (1.11.8). Appealing to St Augustine before him, “no person thus prays or worships, looking at an image, without being impressed with the idea that he is heard by it. . .” (1.11.10).
Calvin gives us plenty to think about in our own efforts to make God known. While there are many who let images of God act like quasi-amulets and charms to them, for the most part we are not inclined to let even visual allusions to God become for us either exact representations of how we think of God, much less as objects not just of aesthetic appreciation but actual worship. But in our age that prefers the casual are we not capable of bringing a corresponding casualness to how we think of God? Do our thoughts of Him, our words to Him, reflect a sense of just how Other He is–notwithstanding just how much He is at the same time as we are in the person of His Son?
The above is just a taste of the kind of rich, helpful, and often debatable theologizing to be found in the Institutes. It’s not too late to pick up–even once a week–where we are.
Meanwhile, since Calvin has earned a reputation, rightly or wrongly, for being so strident and uncompromising, you might be surprised to learn there’s a documentary about his thought. Coming later this year.
We reflected upon 2016 and previewed some of 2017 last Sunday during our “State of the Church” address. You can find what you missed in the links below.
CTK State of the Union 2017 (audio)
- Presentation Slides
- 2016 Year-in-review
- CtK Supported Missionaries
- Deacon Information and Nomination Form
Implicit in the address was our commitment to being a church faithfully present. Everything we outlined had something to do with patient attentiveness and sustained responsiveness to God, one another, and our respective world(s).
Our assistant pastor recently read a book authored by one David Fitch who, like us, has seen the potency of letting the idea of faithful presence form a community in the long-haul of discipleship, witness, and mission. Where James Davison Hunter, from whom we borrowed the phrase, sought to outline its meaning and importance, Fitch sketches some substantive applications of that rich idea. As you read Kevin’s clear and balanced review, you’ll note the way we’re already putting some of Fitch’s lines of thought into our life together. But you’ll also hear some intriguing practices of faithful presence we might do well to incorporate–some you might see come to reality in 2017 even.
David E. Fitch. Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission: IVP, 2016. Pp. 9 + 228. ISBN 978-0-8308-4127-1. $13.19 paper.
“Faithful Presence.” It’s a familiar phrase in our community. We’ve preached sermons on it, and it’s on the front of our bulletins. Even so, the phrase has been difficult to concretize. And this abstractness is felt broadly among those trying to put together the sociological pieces and implications of James Hunter’s otherwise very pithy phrase. What does it look like? How does it play out? How does the church begin to do this in a sustainable manner? These questions linger.
Enter David E. Fitch. What Hunter fails or neglects to flesh out, Fitch grounds in real, tangible “disciplines.” In just over 200 pages (including appendices), Fitch makes a case for seven very particular disciplines in which the church must engage in order to be “faithfully present.”
In Part One of a two-part book, Fitch lays the groundwork for understanding how the disciplines function. The first chapter, “God’s Faithful Presence,” provides some helpful definitions and begins with the necessary and overarching premise that our faithful presence is only the response to God’s faithful presence in the world. And we must discern His presence and be attentive to it before we can do so in any meaningful way in the world. It is, in fact, His presence in and among us that enables us to inhabit the world in any “faithful” way. In chapter 2, he gives his framework for world engagement, sketching (literally) the “movement” of Christ’s presence through His people in three “circles”: the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle (40). It is imperative to read the first circle correct, not as closed, but as close. It is in this circle that the seven disciplines create “a close circle of committed subjects to Christ; all are in mutual submission to Christ and to one another.” (40). Here, Christ is the host. The dotted circle represents the neighborhoods in which those who belong to the community/communion of God’s people dwell. Here, we host our neighbors. Finally, the half circle is any other part of the “hurting and broken world” (40). And here, we enter into the world as guests, still bringing the presence of Christ with us. Fitch’s desire is to inculcate God’s people into a “way of life” that moves seamlessly among the three circles, avoiding both mere “maintenance mode” and “exhaustion” (41-43).
With those foundations in place, Fitch begins Part Two, which lays out, one chapter at a time, the seven disciplines that he sees as essential in the church’s work and witness. For Fitch, these disciplines are as follows: 1) The Lord’s Table; 2) Reconciliation; 3) Proclaiming the Gospel; 4) Being with the ‘Least of These’; 5) Being with Children; 6) Fivefold Gifting; 7) Prayer.
Some of these are surprising. But Fitch capably and (often) convincingly argues for each of these to be (or become) constant practices/disciplines for the church. With each one, he provides what he sees as the biblical foundation for the discipline, as well as what it looks like in each of the three circles. He also remarks upon the dangers and consequences of failing to practice each discipline. Each section also includes stories and examples from his own life and experience in ministry. These stories are helpful in depicting the consequences of failing to practice a particular discipline (or to practice it poorly), as well as the contributions of doing them well.
Fitch is aware that people reading his book will have a variety of denominational backgrounds and traditions, and so he writes, “We must all draw on our own traditions” (49). However, he does not hesitate to question and challenge those traditions (ex. 109), as he appeals both to Scripture and to church history to support his stance. Fitch ends the book with an epilogue that reminds the reader of the beginning – that this is God’s work. He changes the world. And until He completes that, we must be faithfully present to Him so that we might take it into the world.
Never have I read a book with which I have so many disagreements theologically that I would recommend so heartily. From a background in the Reformed PCA world, one will notice a failure on Fitch’s part to draw distinctions between the visible and invisible church. Moreover, some of his phrasing is troublesome and needs either rewording or further explanation. Additionally, despite his suggested reading list, he does not offer much that convinces any already skeptical reader of the continued existence of the apostolic office. Furthermore, one will likely have an issue with the ordering of his disciplines (i.e. putting Sacrament before Proclamation of the Word). And that is to say nothing of his rampant overuse of the words “space” and “sacramental” to the point where they lose themselves in the abstract – an irony for a book focusing on the practical.
With that said, however, this book is challenging, convicting, and in some places, convincing. It is worth the read and the wrestle. Indeed, it is challenging to consider disciplines like “Being with the Least of These” as disciplines. But it is a challenge worth taking. Those who know their own traditions will have no difficulty identifying the places where Fitch’s biblical, historical, or practical interpretations and suggestions diverge from their own. But, it is sometimes healthy to have someone push against the familiar and the accepted if only to see how grounded they are.
Fitch does not answer every question. One looming question for me is whether or not a church that does “draw on its own traditions” can actually and adequately do some of the things he mentions. And if not, what else might that church do (besides switch denominations). Early in the book, he mentions that there are other disciplines he could have included (35). Will these suffice in the place(s) that others become problematic?
Although these and other questions still linger, I believe this book is a healthy supplement to Hunter’s text. But more importantly, I believe this book is a necessary challenge to the church to be the body of Christ to a world that so desperately needs Him. It is, in the end, a call for the church to be the church and to begin to practice what it understands that to mean.
We only sketched some possibilities in last week’s address for our life of faithful presence in 2017. Any of the seven priorities Fitch outlines could well become part of our aspirations for this year. From your vantage point, which do you think would be the most timely addition (or improvement) to what we focus on?